If Super Bowl ads mirror what corporate America thinks the country wants to see right now, one thing is clear: We could all use a laugh. Or, at the very least, a break, from a dispiriting news cycle and doom-and-gloom political season that has filled commercials with foreign terrorists and domestic dread.
So on Sunday, viewers returning to the TV gridiron after last year’s “Somber Bowl” will probably find a newly shiny, happy and ceaselessly upbeat advertising universe, in which the only political party is the Bud Light Party, and everyone makes it out of the ad alive.
“People don’t really care about all these weighty issues when … they’re sitting around, drinking a brew and eating chips,” said Richard Kirshenbaum, a longtime ad executive and chief of Manhattan ad agency NSG/SWAT. “They want to be entertained. They love seeing the Super Bowl iconic ad work, the Clydesdales, the celebrities. They love sex. They love a good joke. Mostly, they just want to have some fun.”
The feel-good renaissance of the Super Bowl ad, executives say, was a conscious creative decision, designed to win back viewers fatigued by despair and eager to laugh (and buy) again. Election years are guaranteed to swim in mud-slinging attacks and commercial bummers; this year has certainly delivered, including with ads for Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio that detail how “ISIS is beheading people and burning them in cages.”
“The present is a pretty scary time. … San Bernardino, Paris, the stock market cratering: They all have left open a market for escapism in entertainment,” said Brad Todd, a Republican ad-maker and media strategist. Political campaigns are responding (and, perhaps, contributing) to that angst with alarming TV montages, but companies “are going 180 degrees in the other direction, because they’re hoping viewers are looking for an escape.”
Telling jokes at America’s biggest campfire doesn’t come cheap: The average cost to air a 30-second Super Bowl ad has doubled since 2008, to about $5 million. But companies who land a gag during the Sunday match-up of the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos are guaranteed a viewership that most companies can only dream of. Last year’s game drew an average of 114 million viewers, the biggest audience in TV history.
The bowl last year quickly became infamous for its unrelenting pageant of depressing scenes. Nissan’s ad played “Cat’s in the Cradle” over the tale of an absent father who missed his son’s childhood. Coca-Cola showcased the rage and bile of online bullying, while Weight Watchers’ ad spun a dizzying phantasmagoria equating food companies with drug cartels.
Some ads even went apocalyptic: Phone-accessory maker Mophie’s ad centered on a final reckoning of tsunamis and looting, all because God’s phone battery died. But the biggest buzzkill came from Nationwide, whose grim tableau of the way children die from preventable accidents, as one executive said, “sucked the oxygen out of every Super Bowl party in America.”
“The pendulum shifted away from these humorous ads to where the brands all piled on with these inspirational, emotional messages — which is fine, except when you’ve got 10 of them doing it,” said Peter Daboll, chief executive of Ace Metrix, an advertising analytics firm. “It got so heavy last year that by the end you just wanted to see, you know, chimps in a car or something.”
No apes have hit the road in any of the corporate campaigns revealed in the days before kickoff, but virtually all of the ads released so far have been bubbly, agreeable and trouble-free. Dachshunds in hot-dog costumes run majestically across a prairie for Heinz condiments. Dan Marino and Alec Baldwin plan a raucous party with help from the Amazon Echo. Axe, the men’s grooming brand, swaps out its typical call to machismo for an ode to self-esteem, asking, “Who needs a six-pack when you got the nose?”
Even the calls to serious topics are fringed with humor. A Budweiser anti-drunk-driving ad stars Helen Mirren, a self-labeled “notoriously frank and uncensored British lady,” slinging insults at any tipsy viewer who would dare pick up the keys. So far, the lone reference to politics has involved comedians Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen, yanking on Spanx to represent what their campaign pins call the Bud Light Party.
The starkest shift in tone may come from the National Football League itself. Last year, stained by the domestic-abuse scandals of players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, the league aired a haunting public-service announcement in which a woman, presumably assaulted by her husband, feigns ordering a pizza while calling 911. This year, the NFL’s ad focuses on singing choirs of “Super Bowl babies,” conceived in the afterglow of their parents’ team victories.
Plenty of self-serious ads have found success at the big game: Perhaps the most famous, Apple’s “1984” ad, depicted modern civilization as a brainwashed dystopia. But viewers of America’s biggest advertising juggernaut have often blanched at ads that are too preachy or doleful. A National Retail Federation survey last year found that 77 percent of Americans saw Super Bowl ads as entertainment, while only 10 percent said “they influence me to buy” the advertisers’ stuff.
Going lighthearted may offer an added buzz-building benefit for advertisers in the age of social media. Many companies, analysts said, believe it’s easier to persuade viewers to share their ads with something cute, like scampering wiener dogs, rather than a reminder of their own mortality.
Opting for a high-spirited ad brings its own risks: Namely, paying for a 30-second joke that’s not actually funny, or that creates just as many problems as an overly wrought, tearjerker spot.
“Funny is a strange thing. It’s very subjective,” Daboll said. “If you make an ad that appeals to a 14-year-old Mountain Dew drinker, there’s a good chance that’s going to offend their parents in some way.”
But at the very least, a cheerier touch will help the companies separate themselves from the dark and dreary landscapes of political ads. And that’s a good thing, ad execs say: The companies aren’t trying to run a country, so why not have some fun?
“They can’t solve the problems facing us with a consumer product,” said Todd, the Republican ad-maker. “You can’t stop ISIS with a beer.”